SpLD: Specific learning difficulty or learning difference? Time for a rethink.

For many years, teachers and practitioners have been using the acronym SpLD to describe a group of ‘difficulties’ which make it challenging to succeed in the classroom. The most common SpLDs are dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder ADHD, attention deficit disorder ADD, dyscalculia and dysgraphia. The word ‘specific’ refers to the nature of the difficulty – it is not a general learning ‘difficulty’ but one specific to a particular behaviour; reading, spelling, maths, handwriting, attention, etc.

Except it’s not that specific.

The underlying processes in the brain which perceive, process and store information are largely responsible for how we learn. If one of these has a natural variation in performance, it is unlikely that only one specific area will be affected. More and more we find that those children who find classroom learning a challenge struggle in more than one area. There is a general increase in kids with a cluster of difficulties and I’m not sure that using the word specific is terribly useful.

One could argue that specific is only meant to differentiate from general – but who gains from that distinction? We are trying to defend children from accusations that they’re not generally unable but the moment we defend children in this way, we unwittingly support a perception that ability determines educational outcomes. On this research is clear: ability and response to teaching are two separate things. But what concerns me more is that every time we call these differences ‘difficulties’, we create a separate class of learning which is outside the domain of normal instruction. In the UK, it is not mandatory for initial teacher training to include modules on learning differences. How can this be?

We may have a specific education difficulty on our hands.

There is a typical learner who teachers learn to teach and one who has a difficulty requiring specialist training . However, the 2015 SEND code of practice, the governmental guidelines for teaching pupils with special educational needs, places general responsibility for these pupils in the hands of the class teacher. In the absence of training, why wouldn’t children who learn differently be difficult to teach? Difficult to progress? Appear less able?

When we say a child has a learning difference, we open the door to a new dialogue on teaching and learning. We accept that differences in cognition are normal. We encourage children, families and schools to understand what processes underpin learning and how information delivery impacts response. Research is unequivocal: how we deliver information, structure delivery and adapt frequency of teaching plays a critical role in helping kids with learning differences achieve.

While I recognise the benefit of making changes to timetabling, learning about adaptive technology, continuing professional development on learning and curriculum development, the largest benefit to this rethink for me is social. I do not feel comfortable supporting a concept which places a learning difficulty solely within child. This thinking disempowers children but mostly it disempowers teachers. Helping children to learn through really able teaching is what makes this difficult profession worthwhile.  

It's time to shake up the system.